1928 - Alderson High School - 1968


FRW Memories—Chapter 1, The Beginning (1954)
John McCurdy '04
(Opinions expressed are those of this writer and not the Aldersonian)

In the spring of 1954, I began my career in the Prison Service. After 4 years at the Radford Arsenal in Virginia. I had gotten the call that I thought might lead back to Alderson. 

I had just recently been promoted to Shift Chemist and Supervisor at the Arsenal Shortly afterward, (and I can assure you it was not my fault), the company lost several contracts because of the trouble they were having with the “Honest John”, “Nike” and “Jato” motors they were producing for the U. S. military. I had the feeling that since I was one of the few salaried persons in the Technical Department without a Degree, and since I only had seniority from the time I had been promoted, I guessed that I would be one of the first employees to be out when the lay-offs began. Turned out that I was wrong, the problems were solved, the contracts were renewed and new employees hired! 

I had previously taken the Civil Service test for Correctional Officer, in the previous year I had been called to several institutions and had refused appointment each time, (who wanted to go to Alcatraz or Leavenworth); I wanted to get to Alderson! The newly arrived letter offering me a Probationary Appointment at Ashland, Kentucky came at what I thought was a good time! I immediately accepted and said I could report at the date they required. 

I went to Ashland, Jimmy Johnson from Fort Spring, and I drove down together and began our lifetime adventure in the Bureau of Prisons. It would be correct to say that when we drove onto the grounds of the prison and then went through the Great Steel Doors of the Administration Building we were very apprehensive, in fact, I was scared! In the next few days and months of Classroom Training and on-the- job instruction with veteran officers, my fears began to abate. 

My first assignment, working alone, was in the 12-8 AM shift in a Dormitory. Being locked in with 100 or more snoring, dreaming, farting and who knows what else convicts, made me a little homesick for my previous job of making nitroglycerine and gunpowder.  When The Yard-Patrolman locked the door behind me and left me alone, I recall thinking, “what the devil have I gotten myself into and why am I here?”  Then I remembered what the OJT instructors had done and I began, the, at first, exciting but very soon to be, boring task of walking, checking and counting!  At 3:00 AM the Yard Patrolman came back and after going to the door and assuring him I was all right and not a hostage, he unlocked the door and let me out. Together we crossed over to the next dorm and he let me in to cover the Count for that officer.  I stood and watched while he counted to make certain that no inmate left his bed after being counted and slipped into an empty bed to be counted again to cover for an escapes inmate. After the Count was called in and it was approved, we went to my dormitory and this time I counted.  At times, as a learning experience, we were told that Count was wrong and to re-count!  This was the Supervisors way of seeing if we were certain that our Count was correct. Every now and then an officer would adjust his Count to what he thought the Count was supposed to be. There would be some problems when that happened, the least being that the officer’s Count would henceforth be a suspect! There was no room for guessing when it came to Counts in prison! 

When the Count was over and we were again locked in, “Lord Above, we still had 4 hours to go until 8:00 AM!” In those days we read all inmate mail, both incoming and out-going, incoming  was opened and inspected for contraband  such as drugs, single-edged razor blades, and stamps which could be used in an attempt to smuggle mail out of the Institution.  Inmates in prison were notorious for playing on women’s sympathy and telling each that  they  were the only girl the inmate would ever love, in an attempt to get money sent to their inmate account.  Sorry scoundrels that we were, we delighted in “accidentally” getting one ladies mail into another’s envelope. Snickering as we imagined the trouble we were causing for the inmate!

The next three months I was assigned to Tower duty, if there is any more miserable job I don’t know of it. I worked something like two midnights, two evening and Sunday Day-Shift. I recall coming to work one Sunday with the world’s worst headache and upset stomach. (Much like a hang-over, for some reason)!  I vowed that if I could only live until quitting time I would never make that mistake again! The entire inmate population could have climbed over the fence below my Tower and I would not have seen them, (and if I did see them there was no way I would have discharged that dirty old noisy gun in my condition)!  

Life got better, I left the downtown apartment I shared with three other rookies and moved to the Bachelor Officers Quarters at the Institution.  Cheap rent,   safe parking for my car,  an inmate orderly to make my bed and tidy up after me,  I ate my meals in the Officers Mess, good food for 25 cents a meal.  I was going to Ashland College (was Instructor in the General Chemistry Laboratory for my tuition and other charges), played on the Institution softball team, went to the Pistol Range and shot as often as possible and all in all, was reasonably happy, except it was not Alderson. Alderson, where my wife and son were, and where I wanted to be, was home. 

I was the proud owner of a new, green, 53 Ford 2 door sedan and each week when my days-off arrived I could not wait to get on the road to Greenbrier County. Each week when I had to come back, I hated it more.  But some things were happening at the FRW in Alderson that would have a profound effect on my future in just a few short months!  .... To be continued.